The American Road Song Is Changing with the Climate
It’s not just a single driver who’s lost direction and seeks a new destination—it’s an entire population.
In the summer of 1998, I packed my rusted silver Honda Accord with a suitcase full of clothes and a stack of CDs and started the three-hour drive from Topeka, Kansas, to my new college dorm. It was my first time leaving home on my own, and I itched to experience life beyond the world of my childhood. As I pulled out of the driveway, I slipped Tom Petty’s Wildflowers into the CD player and let his nasally voice carry me toward the future: “It’s time to move on / it’s time to get goin’ / what lies ahead I have no way of knowin’.” Like most songs about life on the road, Petty’s “Time to Move On” evokes a dual sense of escapism and possibility—the idea that what lies ahead must be better, or at least more interesting, than whatever the narrator felt the need to run away from. Rhythmically, it tumbles forward at a steady pace like four tires on a highway. And, as with most songs about uppin’ and leavin’ and rollin’ on, I couldn’t get enough of it.
My love of road songs comes from my parents, who would play their favorite artists—Jackson Browne, Bob Seger, Bruce Springsteen—on cassette tapes every time we piled into the family car. Those songs glamorized driving all night down old state highways as the ultimate act of individualistic freedom. They also hinted at the awesomeness of the great unknown. That’s how road songs got their hooks into me, a landlocked kid in Kansas who almost always preferred ’90s Brit-pop and hip-hop, but who also felt in my gut the songs’ ethos to get out and see the world.
After buying that Honda at the age of seventeen—a culmination of two years’ worth of odd jobs and a loan from my dad—I drove it to every corner of my rectangular home state, rarely with a specific destination in mind. The goal was simply to go. Sometimes friends would ride with me. We’d drive one hundred miles out of town, Springsteen blaring, and park by a field of wheat, where we’d wait for the sun to set. When the stars came out, we’d lie on the car hood and gaze into the universe, cigarettes burning between our fingers.
Twenty years later, this girl of the road has become a woman of New York City. I no longer own a car—though I never outgrew my love of driving—but I rent them on the regular. In December 2020, with the pandemic still limiting long-distance travel, the spouse and I were trying to plan a weekend trip to the nearby Catskills, but I kept getting distracted by the road patterns in a map of upstate New York spread out on the table before me. I recently read that more than four million miles of public roads crisscross the country, with thirty-two thousand more miles being added every year.
All those roads make car travel easier, but they threaten the wellbeing of creatures living within proximity, severing ecosystems by inhibiting the movement of wildlife. During the winter months, salt used to deice roads leaks into underground water, rendering it too foul for consumption by the animals who rely on it for survival. Then there’s the problem of carbon pollution. Every gallon of gas burned for fuel produces twenty pounds of carbon dioxide. Even over a single weekend, that adds up.
I considered the ecological cost of driving just three hours north as songs by Muddy Waters and David Byrne, both part of the road-song playlist I made for this trip, played in the background. To clear my head, I pulled out a box of old photographs, put it on the table, and searched for the ones from that first drive to college. I hadn’t looked at them in years. I remembered the road stretching out before me—Route 69, its signage frequently stolen by horny Kansas teenagers—and the golden fields that lined each shoulder. But, squinting closely, I noticed for the first time that the fields contained more than just wheat. Rising above the waving grain were giant oil pumpjacks, their metal horse-like heads pointing downward as if about to drink from a well. Startled, I dropped the photos and turned off the music.
The American road song has a long and complex history. At the turn of the twentieth century, Black musicians from the South migrated to cities like Chicago and Philadelphia, and wrote songs about the struggle of living in the Jim Crow era and their hopes for finding a better life up north. The genre was popularized by blues artists like Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, from whom the first rock and roll superstars, like Chuck Berry, borrowed the road trope (and the chord progressions) and molded it into a celebration of car culture. Berry’s “Maybellene,” Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally,” The Beach Boys’ “409”—the radio of the 1950s and ’60s thumped with ditties about teenage rebels and fantasy women driving sports cars.
Every gallon of gas burned for fuel produces twenty pounds of carbon dioxide.
Early rock’s obsession with cars coincided with a larger trend in American culture: the romanticization of the road trip. The 1950s brought the country’s first interstate system and, along with it, an endless stream of written accounts, usually by white men, of life on the road. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road hit shelves in 1957, Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley came out in 1962, and Peter S. Beagle (who wrote The Last Unicorn) published his scooter travelogue, I See By My Outfit,in 1964. The road trip was the newest incarnation of an old American myth about how the conquering of land—by car or by wagon—is an act of manifest destiny.
But like that myth, the road trip has historically excluded, displaced, and even punished racialized people. For them, travel didn’t always have the same connotations of leisure or self-actualization—like the Great Migration, during which 6.6 million Black people left the segregated rural South. Stops at gas stations and cafés could prove dangerous if the establishments were owned by racists. These complexities of road life weren’t always accounted for in American music.
The 1970s ushered in a new era of music and car culture. The oil crisis caused gas prices to surge, the economy to stagnate, and American cars to shrink in size. With this financial hardship came a corresponding dip in Americans’ interest in driving. The Ford Motor Company, the country’s largest car manufacturer, produced 780,000 fewer cars in 1975 than it had in 1973. The music of the era reflected these changes in sometimes surprising ways. Consider the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’,” from their 1970 album American Beauty. In an unexpected reversal of road-song tropes, the singer is ready to give up the road for staying home with his family: “You’re sick of hangin’ around and you’d like to travel / Get tired of travelin’, you want to settle down.” Bruce Springsteen’s 1975 anthem to blue-collar workers, “Born to Run,” reflects the cratering economy with lines like “The highways jammed with broken heroes / On a last-chance power drive / Everybody’s out on the run tonight / But there’s no place left to hide.” And Jackson Browne’s pointedly titled 1977 hit, “Running on Empty,” depicts the road not as an exciting means of self-discovery but rather a solemn metaphor for time passing: “In ’69 I was twenty-one and I called the road my own / I don’t know when that road turned into the road I’m on.”
The end of the decade brought resolution to the oil crisis, but it was replaced by a more pressing concern: the climate crisis. In the early 1980s, scientists such as Hans Oeschger, Willi Dansgaard, and James Hansen published studies that predicted that North America would experience increased wildfires and stronger hurricanes as early as the 2010s—and that much of this was humanity’s fault. Carbon emissions, they said—mostly produced by the planet’s wealthiest nations—were warming the planet and altering the climate.
The growing anxiety of the period was mirrored by popular music. The Talking Heads may not have been thinking about climate change when they released “Road to Nowhere” in 1985, but the song makes the relevant point that humans are good at progress but aren’t great at taking stock of our actions: “Well, we know where we’re goin’ / But we don’t know where we’ve been / And we know what we’re knowin’ / But we can’t say what we’ve seen.” When Byrne sings the lines “And the future is certain / Give us time to work it out,” the refrain of the chorus undercuts his assuredness: “We’re on a road to nowhere.” With its focus on the collective, the lyrics depart from the road-song tropes of decades prior. It’s not just a single driver who’s lost direction and seeks a new destination—it’s an entire population.
In 1988, just three years after the song reached number twenty-five on the Billboard charts, James Hansen gave his watershed testimony to Congress, popularizing the phrase “global warming” and alerting the public to the dangers of climate change. That same year, Tracy Chapman released her acoustic ballad “Fast Car,” which is sung from the perspective of a woman trying to escape the cycle of poverty. It builds on the road songs of the past by focusing on an individual’s dreams, but at the same time, it lacks the simplistic optimism of the genre’s earlier days. Rather than carry her closer to freedom, each length of the narrator’s journey introduces new forms of heartbreak. The song is a poignant reminder that some journeys end at destinations you had hoped to avoid.
In the realm of American politics, meanwhile, little to nothing was being done to avoid the tragic destination that Hansen warned us about.
Perhaps out of selfishness, a bad case of cabin fever, or—more likely—a combination of both, we decided to make the Catskills trip. On the road, the New Jersey Turnpike had been pleasantly empty of other travelers, but traffic was starting to slow. We eventually came to a full stop around Maplewood, New Jersey. Hitting pause on my playlist, I flicked on the radio to find a traffic update. The news was dire: a fuel spill had shut down four of the highway’s six lanes just ahead of us. The announcer told us it would be at least two hours before we moved again.
I turned the music back on and gazed out the window. Remnants of development stretched toward the horizon: a rusted crane laid prone by age and wind, broken bits of car wheels and mufflers, abandoned buildings grown decrepit and threatening to topple. Between the piles of twisted metal were patches of grass and weeds—unusually green for this late in the year—and tracks that most likely belonged to deer. This spill may have been inconvenient for us, but if the fuel leaked into the groundwater—a near certainty—it would further endanger the plants and animals that make their homes near this busy stretch of highway.
The open road is also where I became an environmentalist. Around the age of ten, on a trip to visit my grandparents, I asked my mother from the back seat why so many of the towering pines that lined Wisconsin’s highways were charred black. There were thousands of them—stark, pointed trunks that must once have been very old trees, because what was left of them was very tall. Meeting my eyes in the rearview mirror, mom explained that a wildfire the year before had burned more than twelve thousand acres. A driver had flicked a burning cigarette out of his car window and into some dry brush, where it ignited and spread. I had just learned the word audacity and decided to use it: The audacity of humans to think that we can do to the land whatever we please.
The audacity of humans to think that we can do to the land whatever we please.
Today, I use stronger words to describe what humans are doing to the planet, though not all parties contribute equally to its destruction. Around the globe, Black, Indigenous, and other people of color are hardest hit by the climate crisis and ecological devastation while contributing least to these problems—problems created, in part, by white settlers who conquered the land and, later, laid the country’s first paved roads.
At the same time, BIPOC activists are doing some of the most meaningful work in climate justice today. Jamie Margolin is a daughter of Colombian immigrants and the cofounder of the climate-action organization Zero Hour. Based in Seattle, Margolin draws inspiration from her family back in Columbia, who are fighting to protect the Amazon rainforest. Amariyanna “Mari” Copeny became a young activist when she wrote Barack Obama in 2016 to ask him to fix the water in her hometown of Flint, Michigan. Since then, the Black teen has formed a movement to bring new policy and social change to her city, while holding events to distribute potable water to Flint’s hardest-hit communities. Varshini Prakash, the daughter of South Indian immigrants, cofounded the Sunrise Movement, which is forcing the Democratic Party to take climate change seriously by advocating for a Green New Deal.
These activists highlight how the effects of climate change are not distributed proportionately, while also reminding us that America’s manifest-destiny ethos is largely responsible for getting us into this mess. American ideology, like so many road songs, has long glamorized individualism and capitalistic success, leading to irreparable damage to the planet. The nation has produced more carbon emissions to date than any other country in history, and, in the last four years especially, it has utterly failed at enacting effective climate policy. These young activists are right to protest America’s failings, but their work also implicitly acknowledges—and sometimes directly points out—that we can change for the better, that we’re not necessarily on a road to nowhere. We just need to figure out a safer and more just way of arriving at our destination.
In 2020, a year when climate activism—and long road trips—came to a temporary halt during the pandemic, I found myself considering the legacies of both. How could I drive a car for leisure when every mile driven contributes to the baking of the planet? (The risk of spreading Covid-19 was also top of mind, so we didn’t make any stops on our trip, and we were the only renters of the isolated cabin we stayed in for the night. I wish it could go without saying, but: We also wore our masks!)
I asked myself this as we finally broke free from the traffic jam and continued driving north. As the city slowly dissipated into forest and the highways arched and narrowed into mountain roads, I realized that even to pose that question about driving proves a distressing point: There are no good alternatives to fossil fuels in widespread production. I sighed and turned up the volume on my playlist, only to be struck again by the songs’ complexity—by their entanglement of hope and despair—and corrected myself.
There are no good alternatives yet. But there could be, if we keep working toward an inclusive movement. As the sun set and the stars came out, I felt every bass thump in my chest. I felt the possibility of a better road ahead.
Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and the Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books, where she writes a monthly column about climate fiction. Her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Dallas Morning News, Sierra, Pacific Standard, the New Republic, the Village Voice, the Cambridge Companion to Working-Class Literature, and elsewhere. She holds a PhD in literature from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and was a recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship.